Avert Your Eyes: Demdike Stare's Miles Whittaker interviewed
Demdike Stare are master craftsmen in hunting through hidden and secret histories to create scorching sonic experimentalism. But are they happy with being so readily categorised? The Skinny braves the witches' gaze to find out...
What exactly are Demdike Stare? Are they sonic occultists peering into the magick and mysticism of Britain’s hidden reverse? Or are they indelibly channelling the spectre of hauntology through their bleak electronics and arcane vinyl raiding? Or maybe it’s just all a load of rubbish.
“I’ve never been a fan of pigeonholing,” says Berlin-based Miles Whittaker, one-half of Demdike Stare. “People saying you’re ‘hauntological’, or ‘witch house’ – fuck that! I’m sorry mate, you’re not pigeonholing me into anything. No offence to yourself but a lot of the time, it’s just terminology. I do understand the need to be able to couch something in terms so people know what you’re talking about. But there’s pretentious and unpretentious ways of doing that. We got asked a question about it in another interview and we didn’t know about it, we didn’t know it was a Derrida-originated term and we basically said we don’t want to talk about it because we didn’t know what we were talking about! That's why we did the Testpressing series – we tried to use this as inspiration to push our music somewhere else so people can’t stick us in that hole again!”
So let’s dispense with the tags and genre nomenclature. Whittaker and his musical partner Sean Canty began Demdike Stare in 2008 as an outlet for the former’s technical expertise, steeped in 90s dance culture, and the latter’s pilfering of library records and encyclopaedic knowledge of [un]popular culture. A series of full length albums resulted, all on Manchester’s Modern Love label, along with their vital 12” Testpressing series which hones their craft into uninhibited, unearthly territories.
"We became like an old married couple before we started working on music. We slammed the phone down on each other so many times, we did all the falling out we were ever going to do" – Miles Whittaker
Whittaker has a vast amount of experience as a DJ and producer, stemming from an unlikely source: his time as a milk delivery boy in Burnley. “The first time I ever heard electronic music was back in 1989 or 1990 in the north of England,” he reflects. “We were still doing milk deliveries at that time. And I was a milk boy so, before school, I was up at 5am and up on a milk van and dropping pints of milk on people’s doorstep. It was one of the best jobs I ever had, I was so fit from running around all morning! But the guy who I was working for, who was maybe 21, 22, he was going to these illegal raves around Blackburn. So he’d have the tapes from the raves in the van and that was the first time I really heard electronic music. When I was fifteen, there was a club in Burnley called the Angel which was quite a well known club back then and I used to sneak in. There was a DJ there – now known as Marcus Intalex – and he was a God to us kids back then, playing Detroit techno and Chicago acid records and mixing them into Belgian new beat and all that kind of thing. That was the kernel of my introduction.”
He continues: “Sean was my younger brother’s best friend and I was one of the first kids in Burnley to get a pair of decks in his bedroom so they’d come around and just watch me while I pretended I knew what I was doing! They were three years younger than me so that’s how we met. I’ve always known Sean was interested in music but he comes from a very different area – more hip-hop, when he was a kid he was a hip-hop kid whereas I was into techno, hardcore, jungle. For many years, we differed in terms of musical interests but that created a very healthy environment for us to argue and we became like an old married couple before we started working on music. We slammed the phone down on each other so many times, we did all the falling out we were ever going to do.”
Whittaker began producing his own music early on: “I’ve always produced music since I started buying records, I’ve been buying synthesisers and drum machines and working out how to deal with them but Sean never did and I always thought it was such a waste because he’s got such a good ear for music. So it took maybe ten years of pressuring until he finally relinquished and that was the start of Demdike Stare in 2008.”
Whittaker’s association with the Modern Love label goes back to his days working in record distribution. The sheer level of trust now enjoyed by both parties extends to Whittaker revealing that the label actually sequence each Demdike Stare release, with the duo’s full consent. “Some of the Demdike stuff is me editing old DATs,” he admits. “I used to spend all night writing one piece of music but when you press ‘stop recording’, the machines carry on for a bit and that’s where all those bits come from. The track that I originally wrote is pretty rubbish but as soon as you press stop, it sounds twenty times better! So I cut that up and edit it because I must send the guys at the label two, three hundred tracks a year and they keep it all, everything. And then one day, they’ll turn around and say these are a good set of tracks and it’ll be stuff from 2002, 2010, 2006, 2013 and so on. It’s just nuts how they do it, the label really is the third member of the band in that way. Me and Sean love it because we’re allowed to do what we do. We don’t worry about which track comes after what track, it’s really difficult as an artist to listen to yourself objectively – I don’t wanna do it, I’m really happy that the label’s ears are doing it rather than mine or Sean’s. Because we’re too close to it, it’s anathema to most people but they’re my friends, why wouldn’t I? They never put a foot wrong, they shield us from a lot of the bullshit. It enables me and Sean to keep writing music. Nothing’s pre-meditated, it’s all to do with discovery.”
Speaking of discovery, surely the success of Demdike must have led to a few larger labels to come a-callin’? “I’ve a love hate relationship with the music industry,” he says. “There’s the one industry which is the one I believe in and there’s another one which is the one I despise. And they’re both as inspiring as each other. The majors are utterly clueless. Floundering around in a world which has disappeared. But for the first album, we got so many offers, it was like ‘hold up! Something’s not right here!' We always knew we didn’t need to release anywhere else [other than on Modern Love]. If we wanted to do pop music, we would do pop music. So what’s the point? We did get an offer from a major indie but it wasn’t right. We wouldn’t fit on this label.”
Which label was that? “It was Sub Pop, basically. I associate them with grunge, Nirvana and so on but we don’t need it – what’s the point? We’re doing absolutely fantastic as we are, we don’t need to take that next step.”
The band’s imminent shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow with Wolf Eyes’ alumni Nate Young are their first in Scotland. But as northern boys, the two have strong views on audiences throughout Britain. “The further up north you go in the UK, the harder it is, in a good way,” says Whittaker. “The audience is completely different further north, especially in Glasgow: the audience is real whereas London’s kinda fake. Not to be too down on London, I’ve got a lot of friends there but it’s really like playing to a bunch of tourists whereas with Glasgow it’s tighter, everyone knows each other, they’re all out for the same reason, it’s a lot closer and more intimate and, as a musician, it’s more difficult because you don’t get that everywhere. And I’m from a really shitty town in the north of England so I really appreciate places like Glasgow where it’s tougher, it keeps it real and in your roots. And the audience are also capable of throwing bottles at you but… it’s not happened yet.”
What’s next for Demdike Stare? “We’ve got two more Testpressing 12”s coming” reveals Whittaker. “The label told us we have loads of A-sides but no B-sides… so we finally nailed that in the last few months and we’re playing at various festivals as well. And for the first time ever, we’ve actually got the concept for our next album before the music. I can’t relate anything about it because it’ll be irrelevant by the time of the record being finished. The music may not bear any relevance to the concept. The concept won’t exactly be discarded…it just won’t make any sense!”